In a move more like French farce than smart policy, five French mayors are fighting Islamist terrorism by banning the “burkini,” a full-body bathing suit covering Muslim women from head to ankle. This idiotic initiative is like fighting Communism by outlawing red flags or fighting fascism by outlawing brown shirts. Islamism and Muslim terrorism must be fought intensely but sensibly. Vengeful temper tantrums make Westerners look weak, decadent, repressive and foolish.
The New York Times quoted Thierry Migoule, a Cannes bureaucrat, denouncing the burkini as “clothing that conveys an allegiance to the terrorist movements that are waging war against us.” Such rhetoric helps Islamist appeasers who dismiss all counterattacks against Islamism and terrorism as “Islamophobia.” Muslim women wearing the burkini convey an allegiance to their religion, a protected act in civilized democracies. If French officials fought Islamism and terrorism effectively they wouldn’t have to target Muslim religious practices, especially those like the burkini, which at least gets devout women out of the house and onto the beach.
French justifications for this burkini ban reflect an emptiness deep in their national soul. Prime Minister Manuel Valls linked the burkini to “the enslavement of women.” His women’s rights minister, Laurence Rossignol, blasted such attempts to “hide women’s bodies in order to better control them.” And the right-winger Marine Le Pen, supposedly defending “the soul of France,” wrote: “The French beaches are those of Bardot and Vadim,” meaning Sixties sex symbol Brigitte Bardot and her eroticist screenwriter husband Roger Vadim.
Is this what France has come to? Aren’t French values about Enlightenment and Emancipation? Doesn’t France celebrate “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” not libertinism, exhibitionism and promiscuity? Idealizing Western decadence mistakenly offers the problem’s symptoms as its cure.
Frankly, religious Muslims have a point. Voluntarily deciding to dress modestly is not only legally defensible, it can be morally noble. Although when imposed, covering women enslaves them, if chosen freely it liberates them from modern lookism, voyeurism and exhibitionism.
Here’s a point where religious Jews and pious Muslims can agree. As more and more people parade more and more flesh (often tattooed, but that’s another column), I appreciate Judaism’s modesty – and Islam’s. I also wish Jews and Muslims could use these similarities to talk about issues beyond the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Feminism itself is divided on this issue. Some feminists believe flaunting their sexuality expresses female freedom and equality. Others recoil from society’s obsessive objectification of women, seeing this focus on flesh as demeaning to the female mind and soul. In 1980s America, some feminists even allied – awkwardly – with Evangelical Christians to fight pornography.
American campuses have become laboratories proving what happens when anything goes and traditional restraints are mocked. I know writing this is going to get me into trouble, but honest analysts should connect the dots between the utter lack of modesty; the excessive, obsessive, sexuality; the compulsive celebration of perpetually “hooking up” anonymously, often drunkenly; and the sexual assault epidemic. Of course, the perpetrators are guilty, not the victims. Still, overall, more modesty in dress, behavioral self-control, old-fashioned taboos, traditional shame, and a lot less bravado, would reduce the crimes of date rape and other forms of unwanted sexual contact.
Modern fundamentalism feeds off postmodern libertinism.
The Islamist ideology – and other varieties of extremism too – have flourished in this moral vacuum.
As a political, religious and moral moderate, I find Western libertinism dismaying – while Islamist extremism disgusts me. I don’t justify the Islamist reaction but I see how Islamist demagogues exploit the Republics of Nothing now flourishing in the West to champion their own, twisted Republic of Something.
So, let’s not ban the burkini. And let’s support women being free to choose how they dress and how much of themselves they cover or uncover. But we need a deeper conversation and more balanced visions regarding questions of lifestyle, sexuality, culture and politics. We need a new Western morality and nationalism, rejecting yesterday’s racism, sexism and repression, while restoring some traditional values including modesty, community, family.
We must transcend today’s simplistic, reductionist, allor- nothing choices. I reject the modern nihilist’s world of “everything goes” and “nothing matters,” along with the fundamentalist’s world of “nothing modern goes” and “only my particular, rigid interpretation of the tradition matters.” Islamism is particularly repugnant because Islamists extremists try imposing their fundamentalism through violence – sending us into the realm of good and evil, not merely nuanced debates about how to think, feel, judge and live.
Violence must be fought strategically, militarily, cooperatively. Europeans should learn from Israelis while allying with Israel to fight terrorism more effectively. But the extremist ideas fueling the violence can only be refuted with reason and vision.
I can accept the burkini and the bikini; I cannot tolerate the moral pygmies, Right or Left, who are too fanatic, too simplistic, too intolerant to acknowledge these questions’ complexities. Those of us in the silent, reasonable majority, who instinctively understand that both the post-modernists and extreme fundamentalists have gone too far, must develop an old-new, nuanced, constructive vision, synthesizing the best of tradition with the best of modernity, learning from the past and the present, taking strong stands while respecting the dazzling diversity of views that makes humanity a remarkable patchwork quilt rather than a colorless drab rag.The writer is professor of history at McGill University and the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, published by St. Martin’s Press. His next book will update Arthur Hertzberg’s The Zionist Idea. Follow on Twitter @GilTroy.
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